Oscar 2016 Hopefuls Have a Common Enemy: Father Time

“Time is on your side,” the Rolling Stones have long assured us, though the heavyweight roles nominated for 88th Academy Awards would sing a different tune. Time’s tendency to force or impede behavior had a significant impact on much of the year’s best acting.

Dramatically, you can’t go wrong by setting tight deadlines. In “The Big Short,” Michael Burry (Christian Bale) hurries to exploit mortgage bonds’ weaknesses before anyone else discovers them, and rushes to infer just the right moment to sell before the house of cards collapses.

In “Spotlight,” Mark Ruffalo plays reporter Mike Rezendes, who is always running against time. “There’s a sense of urgency to almost everything Mike does, as if there could never be enough time to get a source to talk, to get the documents, to write the story — it’s why he runs,” Ruffalo says. When proof is found of Catholic Church child abuse cover-up, editors demand a draft before Christmas. “Now, there is a literal ticking clock.”

“There’s never a moment to feel that time is passing or to think about what might be next, or even what came before. There’s only the story.”
RACHEL MCADAMS

Yet Mike, Sacha (fellow nominee Rachel McAdams) and teammates “are working on two of the biggest stories on the planet — clergy sex abuse and 9/11,” Ruffalo continues, so the journos are “locked in a perpetual present. There’s never a moment to feel that time is passing, or to think about what might be next, or even what came before. There’s only the story.”

Daisy Domergue knows how her “Hateful Eight” story will end, says Jennifer Jason Leigh. “It’s a real pressure cooker for her. Time’s running out. She only has so much time before she’ll get to Red Rock and be hanged. But she’s thinking all the time, trying to figure a way out. When she gets to Minnie’s Haberdashery and the snowstorm comes, that’s like God kissing her. The longer the blizzard, the better off she is.”

Some think they’ve got the clock under control, until circumstances dictate otherwise. Calculations made by astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) of the food, water and solar power needed for rescue are all undone in the course of “The Martian,” critically testing his time-management skills.

And other performances couldn’t be more removed from clock pressure like the agonizing pace of “The Revenant” as Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy crawl across a frozen landscape. Cate Blanchett’s socialite and Rooney Mara’s career girl reinforce the lush languor of “Carol,” buckling up for what could be the least urgent road trip in movie history. (The one decision they make to accelerate — when a stranger suggests a time-saving shortcut — leads to their undoing.)

And some screenplays call for a quantum shift in someone’s relationship to time. The easy, measured rhythms of Soviet spymaster Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), or comfortable housewife Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), give way to jagged tension as the former awaits his fate on the “Bridge of Spies,” or the latter reconsiders everything she ever knew about her husband over “45 Years.”

In “The Martian,” Matt Damon has to fight for his own survival.

“He went through so many different levels of managing his time,” remarks Bryan Cranston of “Trumbo.” The screenwriter literally did time, and “from all accounts it went slowly. As he said, there were moments of abject boredom. The realization that you’re physically denied your freedom to do what you see fit really comes home to roost.”

Upon release, “he felt he needed to pound out these scripts faster than ever before … and for a fraction of what he’d earned before. In order to make ends meet, he had to speed up his own internal clock.” Says Cranston with rueful understatement, “I don’t think he was ever a relaxed man.”
There’s little relaxation for the Ma character in “Room,” either, during her imprisonment or after her escape.

“It was hard to comprehend a week in Room. A month maybe, but seven years? I just couldn’t get it,” Brie Larson confesses.

Lengthy journals contrived for earlier phases of Ma’s life provided thoughts to chew on during imprisonment, as well as a later source of reflection. Larson also studied subjects’ experience with silent retreats, and “the way your brain responds to that silence. It becomes you having a conversation with yourself. How does that go? Is it aggressive and abusive, or is it kind?” These investigations, she believes, “created her internal dialogue and who she was grappling with being.”

Clashes about time can be exciting. “ ‘We’ve got to start on time’ is a strain that runs through the movie,” says Michael Fassbender of “Steve Jobs.” “It’s sort of like a runaway train, this immense commitment to his vision and the amount of passion he was instilling. … It’s the classic setup for the central character. Even when he got knocked down, he managed to drive it through.”

Kate Winslet, portraying Jobs’ main brake-setter Joanna Hoffman, believes she, “out of everyone, is the only person in the story who is acutely aware of time, and of how everyone else around Steve is trying to take that time away from him. She wants to protect him from losing those precious moments or squandering them in any way. … She always wished she had a better way of convincing Steve that he should manage time better. If only she could have gotten him to slow down. … If only.”

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